TOKYO – Katsushika Hokusai is known outside of Japan primarily for his small painting of a Great Wave, despite the artist’s intention to pay tribute to a mountain, the iconic Mount Fuji.
Hokusai (1760-1849) is one of Japan’s most emblematic artists and one of the best-known of the Edo era, which preceded the Meiji era, marked by Japan’s opening to the rest of the world.
Tokyo is now paying tribute to him with an exhibition of hundreds of his works from different periods and styles, under about 30 of the identities he used.
Exhibition advisor Mika Negishi told EFE at the Mori Arts Center gallery in Tokyo that Hokusai always looked for new, innovative methods of expression since he debuted at age 20.
The Japanese painter is best known for “Under the Wave off Kanagawa (The Great Wave),” a woodblock print which is part of the series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.”
This piece, in which a large wave appears in the foreground, while in the background Mt. Fuji and three boats blend into the furrows of the waves, is one of the most reproduced in the world.
It was praised by Van Gogh and, most recently has been reproduced as a digital emoji.
“There’s no evidence that Hokusai was looking for the composition of the painting to make the wave stand out, but maybe it’s one of the reasons he’s impressed everyone,” said Negishi.
The exhibition, titled “Hokusai Updated,” which will run until March 24, will show nearly 500 of the artist’s works, from his first strokes as an apprentice of Katsukawa Shunsho, to his last works.
It was from this first master that Hokusai adopted his name for the first identity he came to use, Katsukawa Shunro. Then came others, such as Hokusai Tokimasa, Gakyokin Hokusai or Katsushika Hokusai (the best known), which the artist used to pay tribute to those who influenced his creations.
Hokusai’s final period includes another series dedicated to Japan’s most emblematic mountain, called “One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji.” By then, Hokusai had progressively moved from his initial prints to paintings on canvas and board.
This journey of Hokusai’s life through his art closes with one of his major works, a scroll painted in black ink and colors entitled “A Priest (Kobo Daishi) Practicing the Tantra, a Demon Before Him, and a Wolf Behind.”
The demon was responsible for a plague, and his frightened look is compensated by the peace on the face of the priest in charge of expelling him from earthly life.
The delicacy of Hokusai’s lines and colors are seen in multiple themes, from ladies with long faces to flowers and birds, such as in “Hibiscus and Sparrow,” in which the bird is suspended in the air beside the plant.
“I don’t think there is a before and after Hokusai in art history. However, it is true that the works left by Hokusai have influenced many fields,” Negishi said.
The exhibition commemorates the 170th anniversary of the artist’s death. Many works are part of the Seiji Nagata Collection, which consists of some 2,000 works and were donated in 2017 to the Shimane Art Museum.
Rarely has such an important Hokusai collection been shown in Tokyo, and it could be many years before something so complete of this multifaceted artist can be seen in the Japanese capital.